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Roy Lichtenstein, a pop artist of the 1960s, became well-known for his use of comic strips as high art. Using comic inspired images, Lichtenstein would create emotionally taxing scenes of damsels in distress. Sometimes Lichtenstein would use actual comics and crop them so they only portrayed the woman in trouble, recreate it as a painting, and call it his own work. Other times, he would create his own comic strip-like images. In his images, Lichtenstein did not paint the dots by hand. “Instead, he used various kinds of stencils with perforated dot patterns. He’d brush his paint across the top of the stencil, and the colors dropped through, as perfect circles. In doing so, he was elevating commercial images from comics, and ads into art” (Stamberg).
In creating these mock comic strip images, Lichtenstein challenged viewers to question the meaning and guidelines of both fine and high art. This was, overall, the philosophy of pop artists of the time. Pop artists would create subject matter for their art from “common household items, advertisements from consumer products, celebrity icons, fast food, cartoons, and mass-media imagery from television, magazines, and newspapers” (“Art in the 1960s”). The artists would reproduce the likeness of one of these items of popular culture, sometimes replicating nearly the exact same image such as Lichtenstein did. This technique commented on consumerism and the development of modern times and ideals. American consumerism boomed in the 1950s and continued to grow exponentially into the 1960s. The art that the pop artists created showed the repetition in real life and attempted to draw connections between real life and the high world of art by integrating everyday products and images into the visual arts. The exigence wasn’t a current issue that both the speakers and the audience wanted to discuss. The speakers – the artists – brought the issue to attention and caused their audience to react and deliberate on the ideas they presented.
Lichtenstein also addressed the concept of communication and relationships in his work. If one takes a look above to the three paintings pictured, one can identify a common theme. All of the woman that are distressed seem to all have issues dealing with a man. They all mention a man’s name or “he.” This is also a commentary on the culture of the 1960s when women gained more sexual and mental freedom.
Moderism, which started its development in 1900, was said to have been started with Pablo Picasso’s restructuring of traditional elements. The father of abstraction, Picasso inspired many later artists such as Jackson Pollock. Pollock, an abstract expressionist, was one of the more famous of his genre. Abstract expressionism originated in the 1930s but came to forefront of the art world in the 1950s. Abstract expressionism changed the message of fine art; it became non-representational. This genre of art focused on the medium, paint and canvas, rather than a subject matter.
After abstract expressionism was widely disapproved of by critics, pop art began to grow. “At the same moment that Lichtenstein was discovering that he could use popular culture to ask searching questions about concept, form and technique, Andy Warhol was, quite independently, also using cartoon in his experimental work: neither artist knew it yet, but pop art was about to spring fully formed from America’s forehead” (Churchwell).
Pop art focused on the culture of the 1960s and channeled current events and inventions. Artists have always drawn from cultural events and issues to create message and meaning in their artwork but at this time, they drew on nothing but consumerism and everyday life. Citizens had never interacted with the marketplace as they had before this time and artists saw this intriguing development. Consumerism had grown like an epidemic and artists saw the downfall it was causing. While the American population strived to buy the newest television or appliance, the pop artists were commenting on this malady and saw the deterioration that this never-ending race had on the population. Citizens had begun dedicating their lives to working for the newest commodity; artists began to dedicate their work to portraying the ruin that this behavior would lead to.
As an artist, Roy Lichtenstein had both a direct and indirect audience. His direct audience was the average citizen. By using “angsty frames, often featuring ladies in distress” (Stamberg), Lichtenstein appeals to the common person’s emotions. In Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl,” a woman sinks into a body of water exclaiming, “I don’t care! I’d rather sink – than call Brad for help!” The woman is crying and has an eerie calmness throughout her face and body. Her hand lies limp, showing that she has given up. Stamberg says that “it’s interesting that he [Lichtenstein] managed to evoke such strong emotions using such a cold, mechanical process of dots.” Commenting on the intensity of drama in our society, Lichtenstein grabbed the attention of the common people with emotion but kept their attention when they began to contemplate the true message of the work.
Lichtenstein’s indirect audience was the fine art world and critics. Lichtenstein’s intentions were intepreted very differently than he had hoped. Critics rejected the idea that popular culture had a place in the world of art and that it could be used to convey a message. Lichtenstein had presupposed that communication was the basis of all visual art while the critics seemed to disagree. While Lichtenstein’s work was representational, critics still seemed to reject it as they had abstract expressionism because of its similar values. Critics of the time were still rooted in more traditional beliefs about art and its definition and guidelines. Lichtenstein’s work was seen as mediocre at the time when he was practicing and it was only recently that pop art was given high value and approval. Lichtenstein’s “high-impact, iconic images have since become synonymous with pop art, and his method of creating images, which blended aspects of mechanical reproduction and drawing by hand, has become central to critics’ understanding of the significance of the movement” (“The Art Story”).
Lichtenstein’s character as an artist does not seep into his art because of the subject matter, but his expertise is high. Lichtenstein’s first encounter with formal art education was when he attended summer classes at the Art Students League of New York and he worked under Reginald Marsh, a painter most known for his depictions of New York City. Lichtenstein later studied at Ohio State University with interruptions including some time in the army during World War II and a visit home to see his dying father. He later studied under Hoyt Sherman, one of his professors, who was said to have a huge impact on Lichtenstein through his method of teaching. He would flash images onto a screen and then instruct his students to draw what they had seen.
Lichtenstein’s education was versatile and tremendous. His education and mentors had huge significance on his life and work. This may be the reason that Lichtenstein later became a professor at Rutgers University. Even as a teacher, Lichtenstein was influenced by another teacher: Allan Kaprow, an assemblagist and one of the founders of performance art. Around this time in 1961, Lichtenstein began his first pop paintings and techniques.
Lichtenstein uses a specific approach to creating an argument in his art work; he does not pointedly say what the piece means or what he believes in the art work itself. Instead, his approach relies on the concept that the viewer will have thoughts of pop culture and where it belongs in society promptly after viewing the work. Most of Lichtenstein’s comic inspired art does this to the viewer and of those, “Drowning Girl” is one of the pieces most attributed to this technique (“The Pop Art Movement”). This technique of argument that Lichtenstein uses was mostly a result of his teachers and those who inspired him. Lichtenstein was working in a time of new, developing strategies of communication in the visual arts field. Performance art especially would leave interpretation completely to the viewer.
Roy Lichtenstein was one of the most influential and leading artists of the 1960s and the pop art movement. Through his use of new subject matter and dot painting method, he changed the world of fine art for the better. Lichtenstein created works of art with principles and ideas that no one had ever seen before. Working during the same time period as other pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton, but working completely independently, Lichtenstein helped to transform society into a more accepting and informed body of people. Speaking on his appeal to comic books, Lichtenstein said, “I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc. in these cartoon images” (“Drowning Girl”).
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” sums up his art as a body of work and its purpose. “Drowning Girl serves as a statement about pop culture, both the ridiculousness as well as the entertaining, melodramatic quality about it” (“The Pop Art Movement”).
To let Lichtenstein speak about his style of painting – the stenciled dot method – for himself, he says that “visible brushstrokes in a painting convey a sense of grand gesture. But, in my hands, the brushstroke becomes a depiction of grand gesture. So the contradiction between what I’m portraying and how I am portraying it is sharp. The brushstroke became very important for my work.”
Lichtenstein’s use of argument was a new invention for his time. He would create emotionally taxing comic book images to convey much deeper meanings than it would appear at first glance. Lichtenstein gave his viewers immense credibility and believed in their intelligence. He trusted his viewers to ponder his work and retreive the messages about society that were not quite so uncovered and blantant. As a revolutionary painter, Roy Lichtenstein and his drowning girl will forever be plastered into the history of art.
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